Wearing rubber gloves and long aprons, four Westlake High School seniors reached inside a plain wooden cabinet in the rear of a classroom Thursday, pulled out a dark blue body bag and lowered it gently onto an old-fashioned, porcelain gurney.
With barely a word among them, the advanced anatomy students unzipped the bag and intently began work on their ongoing project for the school year--dissecting and studying a human cadaver.
The cadaver program is new this year at the Thousand Oaks school. Physiology teacher Nancy Bowman uses the body in instructing four students in the anatomy class, an independent study course, and another 35 students in an honors physiology class.
"I think it's a great experience for those students who are really motivated and have a goal of going into the medical profession," Bowman said. "The students are very excited. Their attitude has been quite respectful. They know it's not something to be taken lightly."
The program is unusual at the high school level and even in college. Medical students often wait until their second year of medical school before working on a cadaver.
In starting the program, Westlake High joins another Ventura County school, Simi Valley High, which began a cadaver program more than five years ago. Simi Valley High has two cadavers, and doctors and teacher Wayne Hollins, not students, perform the dissections, Assistant Principal Dennis Rast said.
The curriculum at both schools is modeled after a program at Agoura High School in Los Angeles County, where science teacher Jerry Lasnik started using cadavers in the classroom nine years ago.
In the Conejo Valley Unified School District, where parents became upset last month after junior high students viewed the graphic caveman movie "Quest for Fire" in a social studies class, the cadaver program at Westlake High has proceeded without protest.
Richard Simpson, district assistant superintendent, said he has received "zero complaints" about the use of a body as a classroom instructional tool.
Westlake PTA President Daryl Reynolds also said she was unaware of any parents who objected to the program. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity," Reynolds said. "I think it's been well received."
Bowman said she sent notices to parents last year advising them that the two courses would involve studying a cadaver.
The only concern expressed by parents, Bowman said, was whether their children "have to get up close and personal with the cadaver if they choose not to. My answer was no." Honors physiology students may pursue other laboratory projects instead, Bowman said.
In Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, the program has elicited praise from teachers and administrators.
"It's inspiring," Rast of Simi Valley High said. "What a unique experience for kids to get."
Many advanced high school science students have already dissected animals, including minks and cats. But school officials say the cadaver program allows students to go beyond the usual high school science courses.
Simpson of the Conejo Valley district said allowing students to work with cadavers provides a chance "to really see human structures and how they are correlated and interlinked."
Students said that making the leap from dissecting animals to cadavers was not difficult. Some said they were surprised at the strong formaldehyde smell and at the amount of fat under the skin.
The four seniors in the anatomy course--all A students from Bowman's honors physiology course last year--are required to have daily contact with the body in the dissection process.
"It was different," senior Justin Edgar, 17, said. "You realized you were dealing with something that was human."
Some said what they have learned so far has been eye-opening.
"It's amazing," said anatomy student Christa White, 16, a senior. "You can study detailed pictures in a book, but this way you find out what's really going on inside you."
Senior Erin Cohen, 17, said the course "will influence my decision somewhat" in deciding whether to become a paramedic. "But it wouldn't make me decide against it," she said.
White and classmate Leticia Hernandez, 17, hope to become doctors, while Edgar is undecided on a career.
Westlake High purchased the cadaver for $551 from the UC San Diego Medical School's Body Donation Program, with financial help from two local doctors and both Westlake Medical Center and Los Robles Regional Medical Center, Bowman said. Simi Valley High and Agoura High also purchased cadavers through the program.
Bill Collins, curator of the university program, said it has supplied cadavers to five schools in Southern California.
"Some families don't want it to happen," said Collins, citing controversy over a failed plan to start a similar program in San Diego County at San Marcos High School in 1985. "In San Marcos, families didn't want it, but out in Westlake they seem to have a very mature population."
When supplying the cadavers, major concerns are storage security, the maturity of the students who will work with the body and their respect for the specimen, Collins said.
At Westlake and Simi Valley high schools, the heavily preserved cadavers are kept in specially built cabinets with double locks, in buildings with security alarms, teachers said. Agoura High has a special storage area in the back of the classroom, and the building is also secured.
In trying to instill a sense of respect for the cadaver in her students, Bowman explained that the body belonged to a man in his 60s who died of heart disease. The school was not given more information, she said.
This semester, Westlake High students are working on exposing and studying the muscular system, Bowman said. Next semester, they will examine internal organs.
At all three schools, doctors visit periodically as guest lecturers to speak to students about their area of specialty. An orthopedic surgeon has already talked to Westlake High students, and two other specialists plan to visit, Bowman said. At Agoura High, doctors typically visit about 10 times a year, Lasnik said.
Gerald Murphy, an obstetrician/gynecologist and president of the Ventura County Medical Society, said he performed a pelvic dissection on a female cadaver for students at Simi Valley High when the program began five years ago.
Murphy said he was not aware that some county high school students were performing dissections themselves, but he said he was not against the idea.
"The bottom line is I think it's a good idea that cadavers are available to students at the high school level," Murphy said. "I see no adverse effects."
Other doctors were surprised to hear about the program but said the concept seems worthwhile.
"I think it's wonderful for students who are advanced in science and who are the elite students to have an opportunity to move at the most rapid possible pace," said David Chernoff, president of the Los Angeles County Medical Assn.
"This is the kind of thing that just absolutely stimulates that thirst for knowledge," Chernoff said.